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Herschel's Retouching

Herschel's Retouching

The technique of retouching in order to correct slight defects in an image existed in graphic art long before the invention of photography. Its use to enhance the contrast and other selected features of a negative, so that the positive made from it is automatically improved upon being printed, is unique to photography. Sir John Herschel was one of the first to do it, examples surviving from as early as February 1839. It was by no means his normal practice, and he was not of course trying to improve or correct the image in any pictorial sense. They are experiments upon the viability of what he at first called 'transfer' and 're-transfer' or 're-reversal' - that is, making a negative photogenic drawing by contact from an engraving, and then making a positive photogenic drawing by contact-copying the negative. The retouched features include highlights on foliage or clothing, cloud effects, suns, partly blocked-out skies, and also borders, enhancing the solidity (opaqueness) of marks and areas that need to register as the lightest parts of the resulting positive. In at least two instances he has also retouched the original engraving used to make the negative; and even his own drawing of fir trees (83403) has added pencil retouching.

Five of his experimental photographs show no chemical image at all, but ink retouching so extensive that the picture is recognisable from the retouching marks alone, the original photographic image having entirely disappeared. These examples are slightly mysterious. Fading back to the natural white or off-white of the original paper is uncommon otherwise (though an example is 71131) - a faded image more often retains an over-all fawn or pale sepia or other discoloration typical of the chemicals used. Yet if they were failed images from the outset, why would Herschel have troubled to retouch them? He has certainly taken trouble, for the retouching is very deliberate, and delicately executed. In several it is so extensive that they have the appearance of an ink and wash drawing. One might think they were just that - sketches or tracings - were it not that they are all inscribed with Herschel's usual annotations indicating that they were actual fixed photographic images (usually hypo-fixed). Three of them are dated February 26, 1839. One answer may be that they were intentionally weak images made for some purpose, perhaps specifically for an experiment on the efficacy of retouching. Another might be that they were originally good images, enhanced by retouching and then used so often for making experimental positives that the unusual level of exposure to sunlight has completely bleached their chemical image (but not the ink, which is relatively indelible).

The latter (or both) may at least be the case with 42550, which also provides an interesting example of the hierarchy or sequence of Herschel's experiments. The engraving (56241) is a slightly unusual (and quite dark) stipple engraving of a woodland glade or pasture with mountains, river, sheep, and horseman, and has some retouching itself. The negative contact copied from it (42550) is one of those with no chemical image or discolouring but extensive ink and pencil retouching. It was made on February 17, 1839. A positive contact copied from that (70469) is largely faded, but retains a good area which proves that the retouched negative originally carried a good detailed image. The negative's inscription dated February 17 shows through on the positive, proving that it was made from this particular negative. In another positive (19329), dated April 20, 1839, the image is virtually imperceptible. Another rather dark engraving which Herschel evidently liked (29622) bears delicate retouching, and the several experimental copies from it are all rather weak, though they have not been retouched.

Herschel was working towards contrast (clean and vivid highlights) and clarity of detail, to neither of which the primitive photogenic drawing process readily lent itself. He shared the sense of most of his contemporaries that, interesting though camera images were, the invention would mature into a new print-making technology. It quickly influenced print making: the cliche-verre process was a direct result, while Talbot and some other early experimenters turned to developing photo-mechanical processes. Photolithography was one of the first (see 42737 and 90088). Herschel's retouching experiments, as well as being a practical contingency within his immediate experimental programme, embody the idea that manual adjustment of a photographic negative might become a way of rendering it suitable for multiple prints or impressions to be taken from it, as a successor to a traditional printing plate. In a sense he was right. Retouching and blocking out became routine parts of a professional photographer's skill; but also, the manipulative artificiality of some of the more interesting exponents of creative or artistic photography, from Rejlander (see 75713) to Bob Carlos Clarke, is anticipated by Herschel's retouching as early as February 1839.

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